Friday, May 12, 2006

Right to die? Or wrong?


Today, the House of Lords debates the Assisted Dying Bill.

As someone whose father is in a nursing home following a series of strokes, is in a permanently confused and distressed state of mind, and nearly died of scepticaemia last winter, I have a lot of sympathy with the Right to Die campaign.

On the other hand, as Tim Worstall has observed, it's only one step from Voluntary Euthanasia for the Needy to Compulsory Euthanasia for All (although one should be cautious about believing what one reads in the Torygraph, or indeed any paper). The bill is not a 'Shipman's Charter' and that's a silly way of putting it.

Nevertheless, the use of death as a problem-solver for the things society finds difficult to deal with has a long tradition. I'm not going to start going on about abortion here, as that's a complex issue, but I can never quite understand how (a) those on the Right are happy to use death to deal with the problem of violent criminals, but unhappy to use it to deal with the problem of the terminally ill or disabled babies (I suspect there is some kind of unhealthy notion of 'innocence' behind all this, as if any individual or group could be trusted to determine who "deserves" to die and who doesn't); and (b) those on the Left get so het up about taking life away once it's begun, but are happy to deny life to thousands of healthy children who are aborted for what is euphemistically called "social reasons".

I was praying for my father to die last November, because I knew how unhappy he was with his life and I also knew there was no prospect that the brain damage he had suffered could ever have been reversed. If there had been a legal option available to supply him with fatal medication, I would have seriously considered it. He pulled back from the brink of death by means of antibiotics, and is now leading a life in his nursing home that is.... well, as good as can be expected. In retrospect, I cannot deny that part of my reason for wishing him dead was the desire to achieve 'closure' (silly expression), to remove the burden of thinking about him, caring for him, waiting for the eventual day when death takes him and puts him out of his misery. That said, "misery" is the word I use to apply to the way his condition appears to me from the outside. I don't know what it's like to be in his head.

Opponents of the Bill would argue that it's too much, too soon - that we risk investing more time, effort and attention into killing off the terminally ill than in improving palliative care and relieving distress and suffering without termination of life. While my father's condition is unlikely to improve, one can see there are moments in which he is apparently content. His short-term memory has diminished to an extent that he can only truly live in the moment. That he does not recognise his surroundings is a source of irritation to him. That he can now immerse himself in a thought or activity without caring about any other troubles must be a source of, if not joy, then at least gentle pleasure.

On the Today programme this morning, the presenter (I forget whether it was Humphrys or Naughtie) asked an opponent of the Bill whether terminally ill people should have to put aside their own desires for the 'greater good'. The mere fact that such a question can be asked shows how accustomed we have become to putting the individual's perspective above our communal needs. If the greater good in this case means that we actually have to take responsibility for the less perfect, more damaged or disadvantaged people in our society - whether that be people like my father, children with Down's, or mentally ill serial killers - shouldn't that be the guiding principle in situations like this? That said, we have a duty to relieve suffering when we encounter it, which is what makes me a cautious supporter of the Bill. But what worries me most is that we, as a society, lack the maturity, thoughtfulness and care to determine where the 'greater good' lies - which means we are almost certain to tip over onto one side of the slippery slope or the other.

[FOOTNOTE: Must read - the perspective of a doctor (via Coffee Lover).]


Blogger Brownie said...

My empathy regarding your father.

He has to endure because of the many sick elderly and wealthy people who have nasty families that would have tipped them off a cliff to get the assets.

My chronic pain causes me to contemplate suicide every single morning and be aware that the mere mention of it in 'polite conversation' is a no-no.
I am totally anti-war, any war. We all know war is just a bu$iness generator.
OTOH, if any female wishes to do anything at all to any organ of her body, then that is her business and nobody else's, simply because a child is a 16-year commitment at the least, and the father can walk away from it at will (as so many do).
There is horror and lying everywhere in world society, so I guess what we all really hate is HYPOCRISY.
Peace and love ...

1:27 am  

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